“The broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species”

May 7, 2021 Comments Off on “The broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species”

I’m lucky to know smart people who can look beyond the surface. One of them commented on my peregrinations and the musings associated with them, and observed that I was pushing back against “the broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species.” This phrase has stayed with me for days.

“Broken conformities.” That phrase alone is so simple and profound. “What are working conformities?” I wondered. They must be the shared norms we evolved and developed as we banded together, cooperating to ensure the survival of our species in a harsh and indifferent world. Conformities of speech that led to grammar; conformities of killing that led to ritual and then perhaps religion; conformities of eating that led to manners; conformities of sex that led to marriage … and so many, many more.

Somewhere along the way, those conformities stopped working, and changed into broken ones, habits that we maintain simply for the sake of maintaining them, ideas we promulgate simply because they were passed down, behaviors we ape because a bigger monkey on a TV or movie or cell phone screen tells us that THIS is the banana we simply cannot live without. Unsurprisingly, conformities begin to break once you reach a certain critical mass of people. Organizational and anthropological studies have repeatedly confirmed that critical mass: 150.

Once your community, factory, village, military unit, bike club, heroin trafficking gang, WHATEVER, exceeds 150 people, things, in the words of Bill Gore, “Get clumsy.”

Hierarchies begin to take over rather than collaborative decision making. Freedom of action and speech gets curtailed. Cliques develop. People easily and quickly lose their commitment to a common goal. Conformities that once worked become broken. The so-called intelligent species has become that way, many scientists believe, as a result of “the varied demands of social interactions that have led to advanced intelligence.” But once those varied demands exceed the gross weight of interaction imposed by groups or organizations of more than 150 people, in the words of the great Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.”

What’s funny is that none of this is either a mystery or a secret.

Who hasn’t belonged to a bike club that split up, or that wasn’t itself the result of some sort of internal faction after the club got “too big”? Last time I checked, there were so many versions of Christianity that you can’t keep track of them all.

People have a limited capacity to deal with other people in a meaningful, constructive way. And if the maximum size is 150 for a tribe or factory, it’s way smaller than that for genuine personal relationships. In common parlance, the number of “real friends” you can actually have is five. Not six. Not seven. And no, not the 5,000 “friends” a/k/a marketing network you can maximally accrue on Facebook. Five. Five real friends. That’s it.

Is it any wonder that the more tightly we bind ourselves to fake friend networks that we become more stressed, less happy, and fundamentally less adept at coping with the infinity of stresses that all these interactions bring with them?

This, then, is possibly the biggest and most broken conformity of all, the broken conformity of human community. What once was a small group that itself resolved into a tiny handful of confidantes has become a massive, commercialized, industrialized prostitution of our most naked and intimate selves: the self of our inner, private relationships and the experiences, conversations, and interactions that define them.

So yeah, I guess my friend nailed it–I am pushing back. As hard as I can.

I can actually pinpoint the date that the pushback began in earnest. It was August 19, 2019, the day I quit driving. Whatever you think about cars, there’s no denying that a car-less life in the South Bay of Los Angeles is not the norm. And if you have the kind of work that I had, which is lots of travel throughout Southern California, converting all of that into bicycle commutes was sort of Herculean.

But it worked, only not in the way that you might think.

In retrospect, it worked because it greatly accelerated a process that had preceded it, the process of greatly reducing the actual number of people with whom I interact. When you are commuting here and there seven hours a day, there’s simply not enough energy to devote to the hundreds of virtual and casual relationships that are the mainstay of pretty much everyone’s daily life.

In other words, when you are beat to shit and still have a bunch of emails to respond to, plus make dinner, do laundry, pay bills, etc. etc., one of the first victims is going to be the most extended fringes of your human network. Whether it’s Facebook or the group ride, something’s gotta give.

The down side to cleaving off those interactions is that you’re forced to focus more and more closely on the ones you retain. In my case, that led to more problems, not less … in the short term. Once you stop focusing on relationships that are too attenuated, and you begin attending to the handful close at hand, it’s possible that those relationships will not withstand the strain.

I used to call what happened to me a “failed marriage.” But a very smart friend took issue with that.

“There are no failed marriages,” she said. “And I know, because mine ended after many, many years. There are only marriages that serve their purpose, and those that have run their course. None of them are failures.”

Never one to do things by halves, it wasn’t long before I found my true social circle, by which I mean people with whom I regularly interact in person, reduced to one. From a few thousand to one. And you know what I found?

I found that people I have long admired and respected, people who I always considered good and smart and caring and thoughtful and compassionate people, well, they still were, and even in my most remote locations, we occasionally found time to exchange an email, a phone call, or a text. In some instances, our paths even crossed.

And the people who I disliked, or about whom I was ambivalent, or who I simply stayed “connected” with out of habit or social grouping? Well, they flat fucking went away. All of them. And with them went their ideas, their opinions, their problems, every iota of psychosocial stress that came from having to interact with people that, at your most fundamental level, you really don’t want to interact with.

Most interesting and maybe most gratifying of all was this twist: a handful of people about whom I’d been ambivalent at best showed me a side I’d never seen before, as if my catharsis had made me less of an asshole, more vulnerable, someone who they suddenly found they could actually relate to. In the process of discarding the fake, I’d converted a few relationships into something precious.

The numbers, however, haven’t changed: 150 and 5.

It’s unclear how long I can continue to live on my bike. From day to day I’m not even sure where I’m going to be. But the human mind was programmed to handle the triple stresses of food, shelter, and clothing on a daily basis and to thrive in that uncertainty. What it wasn’t meant to handle were the stresses of 5,000 fake friends and a dozen social networks.

So many broken conformities are being repaired, too many and in too great detail to describe in one post, but think about this: Food, sleep, shelter, sex, love, and yes, shitting, have all changed profoundly. If you think about how life-critical any of these things are, and how incredibly hard it is to have most, let alone all of them function as they were intended, you’ll understand the scope and the depth of the repair-in-progress.

Take a single rehab project, food. I no longer care how it tastes or how it is prepared. I care only that it nourishes. That’s it. If it’s cold mash that looks like dogshit, spooned out of a Ziploc, I care not a fuck if it’s going to nourish me for the day.

Labels, brands, “cuisine,” all of it has simply died with regard to food. Does it have the calories and nutrients I need? Then I eat it with relish and thankfully, because when you live on your bike and spend a lot of your time hungry, and all of your time needing crucial calories to get through the day, the stupid, broken conformities of flavoring, fancy preparation, blahblahblah, becomes as meaningless as that fake friend you have on the ‘Bag because you ride bikes, and he rides bikes so hey, why not click “accept”?

Rehabbing food in the context of a tiny social circle of one or two means that you have time to do other things, like sit by the river and watch the birds. It means that you can still enjoy tasty, flavored food when it’s available or served up, but you don’t need it to feel happy, full, socially acceptable, or most importantly, to feel “not poor.”

Rehabbing food in the context of living on your bike and moving from wild spot to wild spot means that you quit judging other people for their food choices, too. What other people eat really, really, really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the bagel has enough peanut butter smeared on it to curb the hunger.

Bring too many people into the mix, and the best conformity ever will break.

But whittle things down to the necessities and, to paraphrase the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild them. We have the technology, we have the capability to remake our conformities.

Not as replicas of someone’s marketing fantasy, but as true images of who we, as human beings, really are.

END


Fat chance

May 3, 2021 Comments Off on Fat chance

“How do you stay motivated?”

“How do you force yourself to get up and do it all over again, every day?”

“Don’t you get tired?”

“What’s your secret?”

My friend Marc made an insightful comment several months ago while the pandemic was raging and everything was closed. “If you can’t get in shape now,” he said, “you’re never going to get in shape.”

I’ve thought about this a lot because it applies to much more than getting in physical shape, losing that extra 5, 10, or 50 pounds that stubbornly cling, no matter how much Cool Whip and cheeseburgers you eat. The pandemic, or rather the crises that it occasioned, has in fact motivated some people to change shit up permanently.

But for the most part, it hasn’t. “Life will never be the same,” ” XYZ is changing for good,” “Good-bye commercial real estate,” “No one cares about celebrity crap anymore,” “People are focused on self-sufficiency, learning to enjoy home-cooked meals, baking bread, and that’s going to stick,” “So many people are riding bikes now!” and perhaps my favorite, “People are finally going to understand how enslaved they have been to their cars and their commute.”

What the pandemic did was to remind us how much we love the life we’ve chosen, all of it. We love the convenience and we love the shopping. As malls have reopened it’s now bumper-to-bumper and the feeding frenzy of buybuybuy has taken off beyond Retail America’s wettest dreams. Traffic in LA is now more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Bicycle inventory is still impossible to get, but it hasn’t translated into commuting or families out putting around on the weekend.

The group rides are all back in force, every day is new kit day; order in the universe has been restored.

So what was all that about?

Two days ago I camped on the lower Kern River near a place called Keyesville Beach. The dirt access road led to an area filled with car-and-RV campers. One prong of the dirt road was blocked off to vehicles for habitat restoration. I dismounted and walked down it. Around a bend was a large flat plain that had boulders and a cliff wall in a large arc that opened onto the river, and then dipped back into a small series of diversions that formed a little island with trees, rocks, shade, and a flat spot to camp.

I went about my business. Even though I could see some of the other campers upstream, they were a couple of hundred yards away, mostly obscured by trees, and whatever alcohols they had going on were totally muted by the thundering of the river as it crashed through a narrow sluice against boulders the size of houses.

It was a beautiful campsite and when the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out I withdrew into my tent and spent a pleasant night staring at the Big Dipper and listening to the roar of the water. At one point I got up to piss and the moon had bathed all of the stones in clear yellow moonlight, so bright that you didn’t need anything else to see even the finest details.

The next morning I heard the sound of an engine, which was odd because the road was closed. Someone had obviously driven through, over, or around the small barricades. A few minutes later I peered through the trees and saw a family setting up camp. They had come for the weekend and were determined to arrive early and snag a nice spot, damn the signage.

What struck me was not their blatant ignoring of the signage. What blew me away was their size. The man must have weighed 400 pounds and his wife easily 300. They had a son who couldn’t have been more than eight years old who weighed 150 lbs. or perhaps more. The only normally sized family members were a daughter, about thirteen or so, and a small Chihuahua, Max, who ran over to my tent and began barking at me.

They were so fat that mom and dad each had their own giant tent, with the kids and dog in a third tent. The slim daughter carried everything from the car down the short trail, maybe 50 feet, to the campsite, and dad set everything up. He was gasping and breathing as hard as someone at the end of an FTP test. After about an hour everything got set up, he drove the car back over to the legal parking area, and somehow walked the 100 yards or so back to his campsite.

When he got back he sat down in a lounge chair parked in front of his tent, next to two enormous coolers. He reached into one of them, which was filled with beer, and got started. On his other flank was a stack of five cases of 16-oz. water bottles.

I looked at that guy and knew one thing with absolute certainty: It was 8:00 AM, and he wasn’t moving from that chair until it was bedtime, pisstime, or both.

I got my gear packed and began walking my bike back to the road; since they had blocked egress with their three massive tents, I had to walk through their campsite.

The man glared at me. The woman glared at me. Even the morbidly obese little boy glared at me. The only person who smiled was the daughter, who was finishing her umpteenth trip to the car to get stuff for mom, dad, and little brother.

“Morning,” I said.

The man just glared.

At first I thought that they were angry at me for walking through their campsite. But they were the ones who had blocked my exit, and they were surely glad to have the entire area to themselves. The day hadn’t yet begun, I hadn’t made any racket, and was leaving.

That’s when I realized they hated me because I was skinny and on my bike. They lived in a kind of hell, the hell of morbidly obese people who spend their entire lives enduring the withering disdain, contempt, discrimination, and hatred of people who are thinner than they are, which is basically everyone.

They had gotten up early, probably 3:00 AM, driven up from LA, found a secluded campsite where they could wallow in their immobility and alcohols and food without being judged by other campers, only to post up next to the skinniest guy around, who was riding a fucking bicycle and camping in a tent that wouldn’t have housed the dad’s left leg.

No wonder they were glaring. “Good fucking riddance,” they were thinking.

And oddly enough, I got it.

If you are morbidly obese in this world, you not only have to deal with the crippling effects of immobility, but what’s worse, the condemnation of everyone around you, judging you for the supposed moral failures that cause you to be fat, and worse, to raise your little kid to be fat, too. These folks just wanted the peace and quiet that other human wants.

That’s when I began to think about the bike-a-hike that Kristie and I had done the previous two days, riding to the base of a stiff climb, shouldering our backpacks and hiking up a vicious gradient to a secluded campsite on a mountain bike trail.

The only two people we saw in two days were two local MTB riders, who stopped to say hi. They had parked one car at the bottom, driven the other up to the pass, and were now cruising down what they told us was a “Black Diamond” trail.

Parenthetically I wondered why trails were named “Black Diamond” for difficulty. Why not something more interesting, like “Dazzle Princess,” “Lumpy Leprechaun,” “Cake with Chocolate Drizzle,” or even “Poopers”? Why “Black Diamond”?

Answer: Cuz it sounds so badass. To my mind though, driving a car up and biking down wasn’t all that badass. Why not ride up and then ride down?

This trail, which we’d hiked up, taking a route so steep and arduous that the MTB riders didn’t even know it existed, was a perfect example of the pandemic’s Chances Not Taken. It would have been brutal even without my 20-lb. pack and Kristie’s 40-pounder. And however hard it was going up, going down the next day was worse.

But after all was said and done and I’d ridden on to my river campsite that afternoon, there was no denying that the arduous route left me feeling pretty good. There had been scenery, solitude, extreme exertion, companionship, and a mountain lion outside our tent at night screaming at us. Terrified? Very.

But back to motivation, and the unlikely convergence between the camper who was too overweight to walk and the mountain biker who was too lazy to ride up the slope before riding down. The big guy, who I’ll call Al, was actually quite motivated to go camp when you think about the effort, planning, and expense he went to in order to wind up by the river with his family for the weekend. And the MTB guys were motivated to downhill a Black Diamond trail called “Just Outstanding” that took a couple of hours to descend.

Where did their motivation come from? What, actually, is motivation?

One obvious clue is that it stems from the word “motive.” One has a reason to pursue a thing and when one pursues it one is deemed “motivated.” It’s a simple concept. Motivation is nothing more than the will to achieve your end. It isn’t a magical elixir or elusive state of mind accessible only to the chosen few, it’s the drive every person has to do every single thing that requires overcoming an obstacle. For Al the obstacles were gravity, mobility, and small spaces; for the MTB riders the obstacles were gravity, large objects, steep drops, and sudden unplanned stops, occasionally of the head-first variety.

In no case do we say that a person is motivated to do that which is effortless. “Motivated to eat ice cream,” “Motivated to sit and watch TV,” “Motivated to fuck off all day.” It’s only when we have to struggle to attain the end that we start thinking about motivation. But oddly enough, we seldom stop to think what the actual motive is. Instead, we look to motivation as if it’s some magical chemical in the coke can or coffee cup, some divine inspiration that drives people to greatness and the lack of which dooms us to the pedestrian, boring, ordinary failures of life.

However, since we are all motivated throughout the day, it’s easy to divine our motives, and these are the problem, not the absence of “motivation.” Al’s deepest motive is food satiation and he orders his life and his family’s life around that. It’s not easy to be morbidly obese and there are numerous aspects of it that are hardly fun. And it’s time consuming, expensive, and subject to unjust social opprobrium of the worst sort.

The MTB riders were motivated by the thrill and skill of the descent, not by the agony and physical exertion of the climb. Their motivation was clear and easy to understand, and that ride had gobs of it.

This plays out with everyone and it’s instantly recognizable: The person motivated to work hard for money, the person motivated to spend all day commuting on the freeway for a job, the person motivated to study hard to pass the bar exam, the person motivated to drink or do drugs for relief from stress, the person motivated to take great risks for fame, or the person motivated to buy organic food for a (supposedly) longer life.

Of course when the answer to “How do I get motivated?” is “You’re already motivated,” it’s disappointing to say the least because the person asking the question doesn’t want it pointed out that they are motivated by food satiation, money, celebrity, rent money, pride, social status, or any other of the things that truly motivate people.

When people ask the question “How do I get motivated?” what they really mean is “How do I change my motives?” In hard terms, “How do I become different from who I am?”

And the answer to that is not simple, because as even the smallest child knows, “Change is hard.”

Questions about motivation are really questions about being. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?” and “What am I willing to endure along the way?” Because motivation requires you to overcome obstacles, and because people are inherently lazy, it’s a daunting prospect to say the least, cf. diets.

“Know thyself” was the immortal advice of Socrates, and this is the path to motivation, not tricks or tips or early alarm clocks or to-do lists or personal trainers or lifestyle coaches or the therapist’s couch.

When you live in society, knowing yourself is exceedingly hard because much of what we do is a reaction to the demands, expectations, and suggestions of others. How can we separate our innate wants and desires, our deepest motives, when they are tangled up with the infinite motives of others?

Look no further than social media to see how paralyzing outer influences can be on self-knowledge. The curated photos more perfect than any plastic surgery, the glowing reports of life lived successfully and perfectly blissful in paradise, and the suggestion/coercion that YOUR life should be just as perfect is enough to derail even the most single-minded student of self.

Nor is self-knowledge enhanced by excessive knowledge of the political and social and scientific world around us. Some basic understanding of those processes is critical, but to immerse oneself in the daily swamp of vitriol, polemic, and opinions-wielded-as-facts diverts the only resource we have, our reflection, from its most important object, to the most trivial. What good is it to have an opinion on anything if you don’t know yourself?

None. None at all.

As with all obvious choices, the simple decision to know thyself is the most arduous route of all, and it brings to mind this immortal poem by Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer,” which sums up the conundrum of striking forth along the obvious, well-marked, and undeniably proper path of truth, which is nothing more than self-knowledge.

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Stephen Crane, 1899

What was true in 1899 was true in 1899 BC, and long before that. Finding motivation is really nothing more than finding yourself, and the precursor to that is recognizing the motivation you currently have and what it says about your motives. It’s a harsh mirror that can’t be tricked with a little nip-and-tuck or a better photo filter.

Standing in the bathroom and gazing soulfully at the scraggly sag that stares back isn’t, perhaps, even all that effective. The mirror is manmade and the reflection is artificial under artificial light.

Where can you get an honest assessment?

Look no farther than outside, where the sunlight is harshest at midday, but where evening and morning lend an unspeakable softness and beauty to even the hardest granite crags. Look no farther than outside, where the tiny limits of your little speck of a home give way to the vast breadth of sky, so broad that you have to pivot full circle to see it all.

This is the environment most unforgiving but most forgiving, most critical but most accepting, most indifferent but most filled with warmth and love. Whoever “you” really are, nature will reveal it. And the good news is that we only have a few types. Briggs-Stratton and Rorschach notwithstanding, every single person is, or once was, capable of mercy, of love, of gratitude, and of happiness. In order to get at those things, though, you need a motive–you need self-knowledge–and all you seem to have is a Catch .22 because you can’t get motivated without self-knowledge, and you can’t get self-knowledge without motivation.

Pass the beer. The syringe. The Facebook. Whatever.

It goes without saying that if you’ve read this far you really have an excess of time on your hands, or you’re in jail, or you have more than an academic interest in motivation.

Which brings us to what I started with, the source of mine. Maybe my experience is a red herring. You be the judge.

This essay began with the question, “How do you stay motivated?” Because the assumption is that getting up every day, pedaling to a new destination, setting up camp, provisioning, combating hunger, weather, and exhaustion require some special motivation sauce not readily available at Safeway.

Well, it doesn’t.

To the contrary, being outdoors for the better part of a year now has shown me an ever-clarifying picture of who I am: Hairy, bearded, smelly, introspective, loving, patient, slow, accepting, and eager to learn the tiny secrets that nature reveals in her daily, minute-by-minute variety show of animals, birds, insects, stones, waters, skies, plants, storms, and stars.

I’m a student and will be for life, and my motive is to learn and to pass on the crumbs that I’m lucky enough to collect. In me there is no greatness, no fame, no novelty, no originality, nothing remarkable, unique, irreplaceable, or otherwise an exception to Ecclesiastes 1:9, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

How I got to this place is less important than what it teaches every single person out there looking for “motivation” to lose weight, be happier, quit drinking, have less anxiety, get richer, live healthier, be more active, quit spending so much time on Pornhub, and every other failed New Year’s Resolution ever. It teaches us that what we need isn’t motivation, but someone to teach us who we really are, and that someone is nature, and it’s right outside your front door.

Don’t be surprised when you step out and get rained on, snowed on, or when it’s too hot, too humid, or when the mosquitoes descend in a cloud.

Don’t be surprised when your legs ache, your lungs burn, your back hurts, or your joints throb.

Don’t be surprised when sleep in a tent seems worse than a bed of nails, when your nature getaway turns into a state park jamboree filled with howling drunks, growling generators, and terrible music played past midnight.

Instead, take those as the singular blades of grass that cut sharply but not mortally. Take confidence that each tiny scar impels you another step down the path of truth and of knowing thyself.

Believe with all your heart that motivation is nothing harder, nothing easier, nothing uglier, and nothing more beautiful, than you.

END


Ditching life for dummies

May 3, 2021 Comments Off on Ditching life for dummies

Here’s a question I’ve gotten in various forms: “How were you able to ditch everything in your life, everything you valued, everything you worked for, everything that you represented and that represented you, and embark on a quest for happiness, understanding, enlightenment, and peace?”

The most common form of this question, however, has been “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Followed by, “Congratulations. You’re now a bum.”

The answer is simpler than either of the three questions. Great change only comes out of great crisis. It’s that easy. We cannot change without crisis of the spirit, of the mind, of the heart, of the body, or of the pocketbook, and frankly, to really walk away from life you need a crisis so profound that it encompasses all five.

No person willingly subjects themselves to such changes for purposes of change–those that do are suffering from pathology. The crisis must be external in that circumstances alter so profoundly that you must either double-triple-quadruple down on the status quo, or you must change.

Society exists to buffer us from those crises, and give us a framework within which we can rebuild the life that we lost. Society shuns the person who accepts crisis as a challenge to society, society has no place for the person who, broken into bits, refuses to rebuild what was and insists on continuing the disintegration that the crisis began until, with a clean piece of ground unencumbered by the shoulds, oughts, and musts of society, seeks to construct a life that is new.

Such people end up as the founders of religions, as martyrs, as nameless hoboes, as corpses under a freeway overpass. They never return to, say, accounting or the financial sector.

My crisis came after years of lying and deception about what I really wanted in life, which, in a word, was simply freedom.

From my earliest years I rebelled at authority, at rules, at orders, at things designed to reign in that most fundamental of all freedoms, the freedom to move where I wanted, when I wanted, in the fashion that pleased me most. I tried to run away from home, I got into fights at school, I disobeyed every teacher I ever had, I got suspended, expelled, spanked, beaten, threatened, had things taken away, had sick punishments visited upon me, and was always reminded that I would piss where I was told and nowhere else.

Nor do I speak of pissing idly. It had never occurred to me that being told where to piss was yet another restriction on my freedom until, at age 24, I was standing in the yard of the father-in-law of Jean Reigner, outside Angers. Jean spoke no English and didn’t need to.

“This,” he said, “is the land of my father-in-law. He is a good man and had only one daughter. When I married her, he said to me, ‘Jean, I have plenty of land. Why don’t you and Colette build a house on some of it?’ But of course I refused.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It is very simple. If I build the house, it is still his land. And I did not want that.”

“Why?”

“Because. My piece of land is very small. But you know what?”

“What?”

“If I am on my own land, and I want to piss here, I piss here. If I want to piss there, I piss there. I piss where I want.”

I’ve never forgotten that clearly expressed wisdom, as it sums up my entire life’s quest, simply to be able to piss where I want. And unlike Jean, I want to piss in far more places than a tiny homestead in the Loire Valley.

Despite knowing from age two that I wanted to be free, in one shape or another I have voluntarily ceded that freedom. The details don’t matter, but every person can relate to jobs and relationships that were inadequate. And almost every person can relate to accepting those inadequacies as the price you pay for fitting into what society calls a good spouse, a good parent, a good employee, a good person.

What people cannot accept is that they can still be good, and more importantly, live a good life, without also accepting the inadequacies. People can be happy. People can be satisfied. People can be free.

More radically, we were designed in nature to be all those things. We were engineered for happiness, satisfaction, and freedom; it took society and its blessings to convince us that we can stumble along until death with a life full of compromises, of unhappy moments/days/months/years, and that the only real freedom we deserve is the freedom that someone else tells us we can have.

There were so many signposts telling me that I was on the wrong path, but I was fortunate because my father, for all his shortcomings, steered me into philosophy as a freshman in college. The first course I ever took was an upper division class on Ancient Greek philosophy taught by Ed Allaire.

Tall, gaunt, chain-smoking Camel no-filters in class, on our first day he went straight into Plato’s “Euthypro.” Do we revere the gods because they are good, or are the gods good because we revere them?

It’s safe to say I never graduated from that first day. In various ways, I’ve asked that question and delighted in the non-answers for almost forty years. That gift of dad’s, the ability to question the nature of the belief itself and the origin of the belief, is what has allowed me to walk out of the rubble of my former life and, rather than return to it on bended knee, follow the string laid down by the unseen ball of twine.

Each night that I sleep under the sky and look at the stars it is driven home thus: “You are a complete fucking moron because you don’t even know the phases of the moon.”

Or, in wonderment: “You are so dumb that after a year of stargazing you still can’t locate Arcturus.”

More profoundly still: “You are part of the cosmos not apart from it. Your life is only an infinitesimally small particle existing for the smallest fraction of a nanosecond amidst the utter randomness of nature. Whether you die or live, whether you succeed or fail, whether you discover meaning or only empty space, in five hundred billion years only a relatively small number of people will be able to recall your birthday, your favorite color, or that KOM you fucking owned on Strava that until that little bitch stole it from you.”

None of which is to accept nihilism, any more than accepting that the sun’s core is 27 million degrees, and therefore I’m not wearing a coat when it snows.

Rather, great crisis led to great questioning, places where there are no firm moorings and where the answers shift, exactly the way my answers always used to in math class, where variety was exactly not the spice of life.

Paying your debts means recognizing the gift that my dead father gave me, and also the gift of my dead brother, which was the love of bicycling. As life fell apart, the only thing that seemed to provide stability was the most unstable thing of all, a device that falls over the minute you quit pedaling it. But faith is a funny thing and indeed, the more I’ve ridden, the more layers I’ve sloughed off so that within a year or two or five I will be down to the skin and bones of me. Each thing that falls by the wayside proves how unnecessary it ever was, both by the clang it makes as it rattles off into the ditch, and by the Subtraction Theory of Necessities: Take the thing away and see if you can still live well without it.

As the things reduce in number, which were actually never that great to begin with, I’m left with some simplicities, the bare bones of shelter, clothing, food, bike, cell phone, and the occasional wi-fi connection. That’s actually quite a lot until you consider that the shelter is a small tent or nothing at all, the clothing is one set of wool everything, the food is something prepared and eaten in minutes, and the cell phone is primarily a camera and typewriter.

The reduction in things has been accompanied by, of course, a reduction in human relationships because the only way we can sustain myriad relationships is with myriad things. Study after study confirms the depressing effects of social media, and history confirms that people do best in small numbers and worst in large ones.

Without the “things” to hold those relationships together, they simply go away, and with them go the stresses, the uncertainties, the insecurities, the fears, the judgments, and the emotions–good and bad–attendant with each relationship. The thing we know innately, that it’s better to have one true friend than a thousand acquaintances, is borne out by my stripped down life. Some tiny number of people show me love and compassion for who and what I am, some other number … don’t.

So although Ditching Life for Dummies isn’t easy, it is simple, and in truth, I hope it never happens to you. Some pain is so great that the outcome isn’t rebirth, but death.

But if it does happen, and if you do have a chance to look at life with a fresh set of eyes, I’d (mostly) encourage you to take a long, solo bike ride somewhere far away. You’ll be surprised at the person you end up riding with.

END


A little recovery

April 24, 2021 Comments Off on A little recovery

Thirty-six days, about 1,500 miles, lots of up and down, a bunch of heat, a ration of cold, lots of people, countless cups of instant coffee, zero flats, one achy derailleur, twenty gallons of milk, and a billion or so stars … after all that, a fella needs a rest.

Oh, and death. Yeah, that.

When you keep turning away from the comforts of home, so much so that you begin to see comfort as an enemy, home as “a place to come from or go to, that you pray you’ll never reach,” that’s when you begin sloughing off the skin, layer by layer, and finally get to see what’s underneath. Pretty or not, it’s the real you.

In my case, what was underneath was tired. But along with the unraveling comes something else that Huck Finn knew as well as anyone, the inability to sleep indoors or in a bed. My recovery began at night on a pallet on the porch, staring fitfully at the stars. And of course it reminded me of Woody Guthrie and one of the songs that my dad used to always hum, “Make Me A Pallet Down on Your Floor.”

A couple of days later, Kristie decided that what I really needed was less “laying my head in a bed on her floor” and more “active recovery.”

“Let’s go for a hike,” she said. “I found a perfect campsite for later and want to show it to you!”

I didn’t ask whether it was going to be hard, long, and miserable, because walking with Kristie always is. The only thing I ever ask is that we not climb up and over granite faces, which is what she does when left to her own devices. I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m not going around knocking on the door, either.

It took us two-and-a-half hours to get to the campsite, going up fearsomely steep and sandy trails that, however hard they were to climb, promised to be lots harder going back down. This is one of the beauties of walking: All movement requires that some muscle somewhere contract. Unlike bicycling, where you work might and main to go up with the dessert of the downhill on the other side, walking applies equal misery equally, because walking downhill is every bit as hard as walking up.

“You did good!’ she said, which simply meant “You didn’t complain.”

Typically, she runs these impossible trails; what took me 2.5 hours to ascend she mountain goats up in an hour and a half.

The weather was perfect; cool and clear, and as we sat on the grassy knoll alone, so far from anyone or anything that “people” were simply an ideation, a gentle breeze kicked up. I made camp coffee and she whipped out some bananas and string cheese.

You probably know this about hiking and biking, but I’ll say it anyway. It makes you really hungry and the simplest things taste so good. This makes sense. People evolved eating things that tasted like crap, leaves and roots and bugs, and sour and bitter things with nary a shred of cumin or crushed black pepper to soften the blow to their tongues. Hunger was a way that the organism knew it was time for fuel, and also a mechanism to convince you that crap tasted great.

And what could be crappier than instant coffee and string cheese? Nothing, but it tasted sublime. Sancho Panza, my favorite traveler of all time, said it best: “Hunger is the best sauce.”

After the feast we lay down in the grass and napped in the sunshine until it felt like we should begin walking back down. As we got towards the bottom, Kristie asked, “How do your legs feel?”

“Exhausted. Sore. Tired.”

“Oh, that’s good. It means you’re in shape. If you’re sore the day of, you’ll be fine tomorrow. It’s the delayed soreness that’s the worst and the sign of being out of shape.”

I consoled myself with this professional advice the rest of the day, as my legs hurt like hell. The following day I awoke and could barely walk. “I thought my legs weren’t supposed to hurt?” I said.

“You’re just out of shape. But at least they won’t hurt tomorrow.”

And she was right. The following day they didn’t hurt, they were excruciatingly painful in places that no one ever gets sore: The area above my ankles. I didn’t even know that was a place.

A few days before getting back to Wofford Heights, I’d gotten a message through Warmshowers.org that a couple of Belgians were riding north and coming through town. “Could we camp at your place?” they asked.

“Of course,” I’d replied. Kristie gave them instructions on how to get into the house and when I arrived they were happily camped in the living room. However, there had been a few miscommunications that we had to iron out, which ironing basically involved them moving their shit outside.

They were 26, architects, and about as adventurous as it comes. They got to L.A. with a duffel bag, then started looking for a tandem on Craigslist.

“You’ll never find one,” they were told. “There are no bikes anywhere.”

So they immediately found a racing tandem that fit perfectly, bought some cheap touring wheels and a set of panniers, and off they went. “We wanted to ride to Canada,” they said, “but first we went to San Diego.”

This is the kind of misdirection I love. Heading north? Then for fuxake go south.

Lacking anything besides Google maps, they proceeded to take the worst roads they could find, ending up on the 14 freeway at one point, and for one terrible stretch pedaling endlessly into a desert headwind out of Victorville.

“We were so hot and tired that we threw our bike down against a wall abutting an RV park in the desert,” Martin said. “We hoped we wouldn’t get evicted.”

After a few minutes out came the owner of the park, a drunken Ukrainian. “Are you thirsty?” he asked.

“Yes,” they said.

“Here, my best vodka.”

“We can’t. We’re still riding today.”

“Strong vodka make strong Ukrainian leg. Here, I give you water.” He went into the trailer and came out with two full glasses.

Martin and Mjelma sniffed the water. “It has vodka?”

“Of course it have vodka. But weak with water because not Ukrainian.”

After getting hassled by a pickup while they were on the freeway, they changed routes and ended up taking the Willow Springs-Tehachapi pass up through the wind farms. “We had difficulty,” Martin said with beautiful Belgian understatement, like Eddy saying after winning Paris-Roubaix, “I had difficulty.”

I knew. I had barely made it up that same pass on a bike, much less a 140-pound tandem.

“The next day we had more difficulty. Our base tape on the rim broke and the nipple flatted all our spares. We had just gotten over that big climb.”

He was referring to the 10-mile climb up Bodfish-Caliente Road. “What did you do?”

“We camped next to the road and the next day we got a ride here,” he said.

I asked them if they had any cycling maps, which they didn’t, so I gave them a copy of my Sierras-Cascades route to Canada. They photographed all the maps, ate all of our food, and cheerily set off the next day filled with optimism, confidence, and tummies stuffed with my best eggs and hash browns.

How can you not love two young people on a tandem riding to Canada cluelessly? How can you doubt that all you need in life is desire and will? How can you not smile when you play the tiniest role in some young person’s life memories?

This is the other thing about riding around on your bicycle. It’s a circle of kindness, only sometimes you’re the giver and sometimes you’re the beneficiary.

In my case, the penultimate day of riding deposited me in front of a supermarket in Tehachapi. It was late in the day, I was famished, and had no place to stay the night. There is a park that prohibits camping, so I figured I’d go there after dinner and set up camp when the sun went down.

Dinner in this case was bagels with peanut butter and ham, washed down with ice cream. I sat on a bench and spooned the chocolate concoction into my mouth.

A fellow walked up. “You made it,” he said.

“Sort of.”

“We saw you back on 90th and Rosamond. How’d you like that wind?”

“I think this would be a good place for a wind farm.” Tehachapi has about 10,000 wind turbines that you ride through as you climb the pass.

He laughed. “We wondered how you were going to get over the pass into that headwind, loaded down and everything.”

“Same way I get over every pass.”

“How’s that?”

“Keep pedaling. And cursing.”

He laughed again and began asking about my bike. I knew it. Another cyclist. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked.

“I was going to camp illegally but all I need is a tiny space to lay down in. Don’t even need to pitch my tent, it’s not cold at all now. Any chance I could camp in your yard?”

His eyes twinkled and with no hesitation he said, “Absolutely. I live a couple of miles from here. You look pretty safe. Not too many mass murderers eat Ben & Jerry’s.”

Mark texted me directions, I finished dinner, and rode over.

He and his girlfriend Chris welcomed me with a perfect place to lie down, a fire pit, kabobs, and great stories. Mark had been in the navy and was now a science teacher; Chris was a private tutor in Las Vegas who was also working on her search-and-rescue diving certification.

They both ran marathons, and though Mark had almost been killed when clipped by a truck a few years ago, he still rode bikes, though sticking to off-road. The next morning I made breakfast, packed, and made the final leg back to Wofford Heights. The climbs were hard but I had tailwinds the entire day.

Isn’t there some saying somewhere about “May the wind always be at your back”? Well, it was. And it was mighty nice.

END


The answer

April 17, 2021 Comments Off on The answer

Hi Seth,

Your most recent post about forgiveness was beautifully expressed.  It is true that forgiveness benefits the offender, but I have also seen forgiveness benefit those who forgive.  Forgiveness has an underrated and extraordinary ability to relieve the anger and pain of the person who was harmed.  Clearly some acts make forgiveness difficult to imagine, but the greater the harm the greater potential to heal.  Not until we forgive can we set aside or move past the consequence of the harm that was done. 

By way of example, I want to tell you what happened to the 17-year-old gang member who shot me in ’97. I sent you an email a few years back on gun violence and related the events of that night. What you don’t know is the “ending” of the story. I call it an ending, but it was really more of a beginning.

In 2016 I attended Jason’s first parole hearing. I went to the hearing prepared to argue that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life. Even though I was attending to speak as the victim, I prepared like I would for a trial.

Jason was serving life in San Quentin and I expected to see a hardened, tattooed, remorseless prison gangster. When they led Jason into the hearing room, I was surprised to see a shackled, slightly overweight, shuffling middle age man with glasses and downcast eyes. He looked like he was going to his execution and he was nothing like the killer I expected.

What followed affected me profoundly. I learned that Jason had taught himself to read and write in solitary, that he was a good worker who cleaned the prison hospital and that he was sorry for what he had done. I remember writing on my legal pad “not what I expected.” While I’m sure that some victims appreciate these hearings as an extension of the punishment the offender deserves, I was ashamed to be a member of a society that would subject anyone to such scrutiny. The hearing included a thorough recitation of Jason’s childhood, foster care, juvenile and adult criminal history, incarceration offense, prison misconduct, and as a final indignity they went line by line through a psychological evaluation. It was not lost on me that the stakes of these hearings are nothing less than one’s freedom.

Once the commissioners finished their recitation, Jason was allowed to speak.  While I was moved by his apology, he said two things that resonated with me.  The first thing he said was he had always viewed the police as just another gang.  Better funded maybe, but a gang nonetheless.  He next told a story about how during his attendance at one of his self-help groups he met with a retired police officer who volunteered his time at the prison.  Through tears he told how much it meant to him that this retired officer would listen to the story without judging or shunning him. 

When it was my turn to speak, I went through with most of my presentation, but when I reached the end I told the commission that because of what I heard I would not ask them to deny Jasons parole. I told them that I would respect whatever decision they made.

Jason was denied parole that time, but I could not stop thinking about what happened at the hearing and what he had said. The more I thought about his description of the police as simply another gang, the more I realized that, he was right, at least from his perspective. With that realization I began to understand that we were both simply doing what each of us had been trained to do [Ed. Note: Tom is a retired policeman.] Considering his upbringing, illiteracy, physical and emotional abuse, and all of his negative contacts with the police I began to see that the violence of that night was all but inevitable. Once this became clear to me, I realized that his apology was unnecessary. Once I understood why it happened, I was able to release whatever anger I still harbored.

However, while I may have been able to let go of my anger, my wife was not. It would be difficult for me to effectively and fully express the degree to which the shooting harmed my wife. When Jason was sentenced to prison, so was she. She suffered deep depression, substance abuse, and an intense fear for her safety and mine. For most of the first 10 years she hardly left the house and spent most of time sleeping or self-medicating. She was in a masters English program and trying to teach at our local JC, but she was never able to finish her thesis and she simply walked out of her English class one day, and has never returned. While things eventually improved I feared that she had been irreparably broken.

When I was given notice of Jason’s first parole hearing I asked Christy if I should attend, and while the idea that Jason might get out of prison clearly terrified her, she told me that if it was important to me, that I should go. When I returned from the hearing and told her what I had done, I was surprised that she didn’t object to my decision.

What Jason had said about the retired police officer got me thinking that I could have a similar or even greater influence on his life if I were to offer my help. About a year later, at Jason’s second parole hearing, I got that chance. At the second hearing, I again told the board that I would respect whatever decision they made but that I wanted to reach out to Jason and help him, if I could. I told the board that I had come to understand why he had shot me and that because I understood I would accept his apology if it helped him, but that for myself it was unnecessary. When they denied Jason parole a second time, I realized that if he wanted my help he would be unable to contact me. In fact he was precluded from contact by a stay-away order. Not really knowing what my next step would be, I contacted the Department of Corrections Victim Services, who put me in touch with the Victim Offender Dialogue program.

The assigned facilitator, Martina Lutz-Schneider, next began the lengthy process to determine whether our talking to one another was a good idea. All through this process, Christy continued to support me, even as I could see that she was increasingly anxious and fearful. That said, every time I told her that I would back out of the dialogue if she wanted me to, she would simply say that I should keep going if it was important to me.

As the dialogue approached, Martina asked me to think about having a support person attend the dialogue with me. She said this was important even if I didn’t need the support, because as time passed it would be valuable to be able to talk about the dialogue with someone I was close with, who was able to witness our dialogue.

One night while I was trying to figure out who would be a good candidate, I asked Christy if she had any thoughts on who would be good and to my complete surprise, she said “What about me?” To be clear, given her fear of Jason, she was the last person I would have thought to ask.

As the day of the dialogue approached, Christy became increasingly anxious and fearful, but every time I suggested we cancel, she told me no, that she knew this was important to me and she insisted the dialogue go forward.

The day of the dialogue, Christy was too frightened to be in the same room with Jason, but she was able to watch it via a monitor set up by a documentary film crew.   Jason and I had a great conversation, we laughed and cried and I found myself thinking what a waste it was that he had been abused and thrown away by society.  We talked for a couple of hours and at a break, the producer approached and said that Christy wanted to talk to Jason.  I found my wife in tears and she told me that she could see the remorse in his eyes and that she wanted to tell him that she was proud of what he had accomplished in prison that she forgave him. 

I know that I will never again in my life see anything as beautiful as my wife walking into that room, throwing her arms around the man who nearly killed me and opening up her heart. 

I hope that I haven’t taken too long to get to the point, but your apology and plea for forgiveness reminded me of the power contained in both the apology and the forgiving. Since that day, my wife is a different person or rather she is person whose strength and beauty are a distillation of her struggle to confront her deepest, darkest fears. Her act of forgiveness released her from her prison and has led to a succession of amazing events, not the least of which is her support for his release at his third and last parole hearing.

The anger generated by that act of violence could have destroyed us, but the simple acts of understanding and forgiveness instead made us all better, stronger, more compassionate and loving human beings.

Jason texts Christy and I every morning and I can’t tell you how much joy that simple act gives us. 

To each person you apologized to, you gave a key to unlock their self-imposed confinement. You can’t make people do anything, but your act of humility and contrition has the power to allow them to release themselves and that is a beautiful gift.

Thank you for your insight, self awareness, and for taking us along on your journey.

Kindest Regards,
Tom

The ask

April 15, 2021 Comments Off on The ask

Shortly before my father died I began sending out a handful of texts and emails to people who I owed apologies.

It was an odd feeling to watch the replies trickle in, as well as the silences.

Some forgave quickly. One imposed impossible conditions. One called to talk. One forgave then, incredibly, asked forgiveness himself.

It’s trite but the apology and the plea for forgiveness are not for the offended but for the offender. Whether given or refused, it’s not being forgiven that cleanses, it’s the act of getting on your knees and begging.

Those who forgive want to uplift you and to validate in themselves that they are good people, that they believe in redemption. Those who prefer to rub your nose in your own shit, or let you twist in the wind, have their reasons: the hurt was too big, the apology was too small, the protection of anger is more important than the vulnerability of forgiveness, or simply that they don’t believe in it.

But when you’ve begged, you can’t then judge or condem the victim whatever his response. Beggars can’t, in truth, be choosers.

And for my part, the act of asking was enough.

Almost.

One person to whom I apologized, Rich Hirschinger, suggested that I could do it publicly. That stung but he was right. If you are willing to say “I’m truly sorry” in a whisper, you should be willing to say it in a shout.

Death isn’t an endpoint, it’s a reorganization. The person who was, is gone, and others seamlessly fill in the space he once occupied, be it a desk, a room, or the communications crackle of a phone line.

With that reorganization come new feelings and realizations, primarily sadness and regret. As one friend wrote, you become an orphan. In my case, there weren’t a lot of unsaid things between me and dad. But in the reorganization, I realized there were things unsaid to others.

As Lincoln famously said to Edwin Stanton, “The things I have said, I do not now unsay.” Because once said, it’s forever.

On the other hand, I can say to Rich and a handful of others, accepted or not, believed or not, understood or not, “I am truly sorry.”

To which he shot back these ancient Jewish words of condolence: “May your father’s memory be a blessing.”

END


Requiem for a dad

April 13, 2021 Comments Off on Requiem for a dad

Franklin Chandler Davidson died today surrounded by his cats and his wife.

He didn’t pass, go onto his reward, reunite with his maker, set his burden down, or expire peacefully. He just fucking died. As Leadbelly sang in Poor Howard, “Old Howard’s dead and gone, left me here to sing this song.”

Dad’s dead and gone, and I’m the only son left to sing his song. It will be out of tune, scratchy, an original score, and have too many stanzas, but it will be sung from my heart, all true except for the parts that aren’t.

He just missed the 85-year mark, drifting off into death after complications that arose after getting his second covid vaccination. He was hospitalized for a short time with meningitis, which was beaten back with antibiotics that left him too feeble to ever recover.

It was a good run, dad. In your life you were hospitalized exactly once.

The dad who died was a shell of the dad who lived. Years of dementia had left him in a terribly degraded state, the very thing he feared most. I remember him once telling me, when death was more theory than practice, that he wanted “to be pushed to the curb and left to die” if he ever became senile.

Brave but unfulfilled words, like one of his favorite pieces of advice, “Die young and make a good-looking corpse.” He hung onto life tenaciously long after his mental faculties were gone.

And what mental faculties they were! Phi Beta Kappa as a philosophy major at UT Austin, journalist for the Daily Texan, journalist for the Texas Observer, Fulbright Scholar in Poitiers, writer for Harper’s, admitted to Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and Princeton for graduate school (he chose Princeton), full professor at Rice University, only faculty member ever to hold dual endowed chairs in political science and sociology, department chairman, expert witness in countless voting rights cases, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bolden v. City of Mobile, oral historian of Texas politics, author of numerous books, countless papers, winner of university-wide teaching awards, lover of poetry and literature, and damned handy with a manual post-hole digger.

Dad could write eulogies, too, and for a period of years, as parents and older relatives died off, he was much in demand at funerals. Dad got to the essence of the good in a person’s life. He made you cry, but he made you grateful that someone with such a gift for words had spoken beautifully and thoughtfully about the dead.

Dad was good with kids a lot of the time, too. One time our friends were over, including Jimmy Superville, who seemed destined for prison and an early grave.

“Okay, boys,” dad said. “We’re gonna have a shit picking contest to see who can clean up the most dogshit in the yard the fastest!”

You never saw a bunch of kids go after anything so hard, and in ten minutes we had picked up six months’ worth of dried turds. The winner? Jimmy Superville.

“Jimmy!” dad said, “I declare you the all-time champion shit-picker!”

It was likely the only thing he had ever won, and not only was he proud, but we were envious.

Of course dad was also a bonafide sonofabitch. Arrogant, overweening, skeptical of the intellect of others, in love with titles and academic pedigrees, misogynistic to mom and abusive to his sons, stingy beyond reason, overly fond of booze, and possessed of a violent temper that he vented on defenseless kids … dad was complicated, contradictory, lovable, hateable, human.

Why? Because dad was born on a West Texas ranch into a mean-ass cattle ranching family whose saving grace was his mother Sarah. If dad’s ideas of discipline were odious, his father’s were barbaric. Sarah was the first person on either side of the family to attend college, and his dad Frank was an ill-tempered, murderous Border Patrol agent who 4-F’d out of the Marines due to flat feet.

If dad got the mean streak from Frank, he got the gentleness and bookishness from Sarah. That love he passed on with incredible passion to Ian and me. We could read by age four, and he used us at ages five and six to review the proofs of his first book, Biracial Politics, which on publication got a glowing review from C. Vann Woodward in the New York Review of Books.

“That review got me on tenure track at Rice,” he later told me.

He read us stories at night, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbit, and so many more. And he read with such excitement! On a penurious salary at Rice with a young family he insisted on buying the Book House series, a World Book and later Britannica encyclopedias.

In my violent and crazy home, words were honored. Writing was beauty. Writers were nobility.

And TV? We never had one. “TV is for idiots,” he would say, which only made us lust even more for Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke.

Dad’s trajectory was scattered. He sold real estate, Fuller brushes, worked in the oilfields, and served in the navy on the USS Thomaston between Korea and Vietnam. His name is engraved on the plaque of hometown veterans in Fort Davis, Texas.

He left El Paso, where he graduated at the top of Ysleta High School, destined to become a Baptist preacher, only to lose his religion one day swabbing the decks of the Thomaston. He enlisted to earn enough money to finish college, but his religion began unraveling before that.

“There was a guy in my co-op, Abe, a Jew. I was always trying to convert him. Then one day he said, ‘Well, Chandler, what if a person doesn’t believe the New Testament?’ I was flabbergasted,” dad said. “It had never occurred to me that people might not believe those words. That they might not be true.”

He’d been raised among the bible beaters but quickly left them behind.

When the scales fell from his eyes he realized that he was surrounded by the social injustice of segregation. Austin’s movie theaters didn’t allow blacks, so dad joined a group that fought against and that successfully desegregated the theaters. A great YouTube story about it is here.

Dad’s social conscience led him to switch Ph.D. programs from philosophy to sociology at Princeton, after which he flunked his comprehensive exams and faced dismissal from the program. His professors gave him one more chance, and six months later he passed. Dad’s thinning hair thinned a bunch during those years, I’m sure.

He had married mom, had two unplanned kids, and was battling the demons of academic survival at Princeton. That toxic recipe, along with dad’s misogyny and mom’s profound unhappiness, began the process that put paid to their marriage after nineteen years. And unhappy though they might have been, in good times dad lavished love on his sons.

He bought us bikes and taught us how to ride them, then took us on bike rides.

He converted our wagon into a plywood airplane and dragged it endlessly around the block, replete with airplane engine sounds.

He taught us to play baseball and started a thousand sandlot games at our neighborhood park in Galveston.

He took us camping and floating down the Rio Frio.

He taught me how to birdwatch.

He took us to see The Fugs.

He took us to the memorial service for Mance Lipscomb.

He took us to war protests.

He taught us to love Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

He took us backpacking in the Rockies.

He taught us to swim in pools, lakes, and oceans.

He took us sailing, taught us to fish, and how to appreciate the majesty of a sunrise.

He taught us to hate racism and discrimination in all its forms, and we were allowed to hate Republicans if we so desired.

He thought the Second Amendment was dumb but taught us gun safety and how to shoot a .22.

He taught us how to sharpen a knife.

He taught us that long hair on boys was okay, and that you shouldn’t judge people by the clothes they wear.

He taught us how to barbecue a brisket and how to safely shoot off fireworks.

He taught us to save money, not to owe money to credit card companies, and to fear debt.

And he showed us how to love animals, whether dogs, cats, or guinea pigs. As a boy his dad had made a big deal out of dad’s first deer hunt. Frank had rifles and pistols galore, a physically little man yearning to be big. “I shot the deer,” dad told me, “and ran over to it. It was such a beautiful animal.”

To Frank’s chagrin, he cried, and worse, never hunted again. He was eight.

But even as dad devoted his life to social justice, he never fully understood racism. He had few if any black friends when I was growing up, and his circle consisted mostly of white guys. He never saw that you can be part of the solution, but also part of the problem. When mom entered medical school, dad insisted we live on the black side of town, at 1512 Rosenberg. We were the first white kids to attend Booker T. Washington Elementary, since demolished.

We protested mightily, but dad said, “Only way you’ll ever get along with other people is through integration.” However much he failed personally in that regard, he was right and he succeeded with me and Ian.

Dad had a cadre of students from the 60’s who loved him, guys like Bill Ross, who earned dad’s respect at a party by jumping up and down on our car, ruining the hood.

“What the hell are you doing?” dad had yelled.

“I’m fucking up your car for the lousy C you gave me!” Bill shot back. Boom. Lifelong friends.

Dad was at the forefront of the LGBT movement at Rice. A young woman who would later become the first lesbian mayor of Houston came into his office one day in 1980. Dad had a big poster that said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

“Will you be the faculty sponsor for our club?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know. What is it?”

“The gay and lesbian student association.”

“Why don’t you get one of the gay or lesbian faculty members to sponsor you?”

“They all refused.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I’d be honored,” he said.

When mom dumped dad he fell into a depression, but pulled himself out of it by fucking his way through the dating scene like a scythe through silk panties. Dad was a dick but eligible: full professor, mid-40’s, looked a bit like Sean Connery, a happy drunk who loved a good time.

Dad’s family consisted of his second wife, his brother Tony, sister-in-law Robin, their kids Josh and Chelsea (and Chelsea’s family), niece Hilary and nephew Evan, me, daughter-in-law Yasuko, granddaughter Cassady, her husband Torazo and their three boys Ringoro, Kohaku, and Suzunami, grandson Hans and his wife Julia, and grandson Woodrow. Dad’s cousin Eddie, the only person he ever forgave for being a Republican, and with whom he grew up on the ranch, is alive and kicking in Ft. Worth.

Time and his second marriage marriage beat dad down in a good way, especially with respect to his grandkids. He took them to the ocean, to chess tournaments, far afield to Dauphin Island, to Disneyworld, and a thousand times to the neighborhood swimming pool. He never yelled at, and certainly never struck them.

When I married in Japan in 1987, dad was the only member of my family who came to the wedding. He loved Japan and his daughter-in-law, and doted on our kids.

But after my brother shot himself, dad was never the same. He never saw his role in the tragedy, could never see the connection between his and mom’s abuse and the sad outcome 49 years later. Like many fathers, dad feared his sons. We were never good or smart enough, even though Ian went to Penn on a full doctoral program scholarship. That insecurity, arrogance, and fear of failure he passed on to us.

I recognized dad’s mental decline several years ago, when I convinced him to join me on a trip to Germany to visit my eldest son. He was disoriented, fearful, and utterly incapacitated in such a foreign environment. When I told his wife upon our return, she denied it. Sometimes we only see what we want to see.

For years his good friend Barbara, whose own mother died of dementia, took him to lunch and kept his spirits up in the face of the obvious. But inevitable means something.

Last November I rode my bike to Texas to say goodbye. I knew I’d never see him again. We sat there and talked, him doing everything he could to pull it together, just for a little while. And he did.

We got to talking about poetry, and I told him I was memorizing the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

“Oh my gosh,” he said. “Let’s hear some of it!”

I obliged. His face lit up, old synapses firing might and main. “That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed.

No one had ever asked to hear it before. Of course dad would.

Love you, dad.


Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

April 8, 2021 Comments Off on Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

I am happy.

The tiny crack on the horizon, letting in fingers of multihued sunlight split more perfectly than by any prism; the coos of mourning doves and the braying joy of grackles; the blustery night’s wind tamed to a gentle pre-dawn breeze … and time, uncurling at its own pace, unhurried by alarms, to-dos, notifications, meetings, phone calls, emails, texts, and the imperatives of modern enslavement, simply unrolling with the rising sun, beckoning, asking without rush or threat or command, “And what will you do TODAY?”

Today is of course nothing more than yesterday’s memories, tomorrow’s expectations, and today’s necessities condensed into the mortal now. And yesterday, well, she was a doozy. My crib was a culvert beneath CA 111, southbound, and shared with a colony of greatly disturbed cliff swallows.

As the sun dipped they would twist, careen, and jet into the culvert for the safety of their adobe nests only to find human encamped at the far end. For a while they refused to roost, calling, warning, pirouetting, then racing back out to reconsider, reconnoiter, loudly chatter and complain.

I lay motionless in my sweat and waited for the dropping sun to do its work, forcing the swallows into the now-questionable safety of home. Because on the road, when done properly, you learn to wait. Things unfold, sweat dries, breezes spring up, and birds eventually roost. Immediately above my tent, in the failing rays, the last two holdouts wafted in and performed the most intricate ballet ever, rocketing from full speed to zero, wings folding, tiny feet opened to grasp the mud doorstep and, upside down, vanish into home.

Perfectly.

So tell me again about that quad you did on the ice that time …

My wake-up call was repeated throughout the night as BNSF blew its train horns ceaselessly until I got up, packed up, and started the 60-mile slog from Mecca to Brawley. The early morning air smelled so sweet and the breeze blew cool, pretending that desert, heat, dryness, and wind weren’t rattling the cage, roaring to be set free.

And they were.

CA 111 along the east coast of the Salton Sea is spectacular. There is nothing there but sand, water, sky, and an impeccably paved road with manicured shoulder and zero traffic. The absence of cars makes the heart grow fonder even against a hot headwind.

Routes like this, raw beauty, tough conditions, and a culvert for a hotel make you feel like you really are traveling. Call it touring or bikepacking or roughing it, but don’t call it easy, don’t call it scripted. After 24 days of hard traveling you either find the groove or you find the fastest way home that you can.

I was mulling this and other things when I saw a border patrol checkpoint. The shade beckoned and I was ready for a couple of oranges and some water. The agents graciously let me borrow bench and shade, and as I got ready to leave, up rolled two cyclists. To say that the Salton Sea is not a typical bike tour route is an understatement.

But these guys weren’t typical.

They had simply thrown some shit in a crate, strapped it on their bikes, slapped on a sombrero and started pedaling. Forget the gear, the hashtags, the branded clothing. Their brand was “Fuck let’s go,” and they had smiles pasted from ear to ear. The night before they had camped in Slab City, itself more adventure than a hundred culverts. Google it …

I found my campsite, $7 a day, but not before loading up on food at Niland. I drank a quart of milk and a quart of Gatorade, sitting in front of the grocery and watching the parade of desert people. I saw more hardened, DGAF, dirt poor, nonchalant, generally happy people in that half hour than I’ve ever seen in LA.

Why?

Well, one thing is things. The less you have, the happier you are. And as my life is distilling down to what I can physically carry, I’m nearing 190 proof, the capacity to carry only a few things but also to carry infinite love. Having no things seems to equate with having no-thing to do besides, you know, live.

My reward for the day’s sweat was a sunset performance without peer. Every diet should include daily helpings of sunrise and sunset. They help digest the day, reset your soul, make the cycle complete. And the only limit on how many servings you can have is the length of your life.

END


Day 23: High desert beauty

April 6, 2021 Comments Off on Day 23: High desert beauty

There are ditches, and there are ditches.

A few days spent with friends was enough to rejuvenate the legs and get some spectacular desert views.

Yesterday we returned to Joshua Tree National Park. There was a whipping tailwind all the way to the bottom of the 12-mile ascent, but cheery conversation and fresh legs made it pass in a flash. Of course beforehand we loaded up on necessaries like … water.

All the campgrounds were full, so we wandered off the road and improvised. When you don’t have a car or an RV, and the size of the park is bigger than Rhode Island, it’s easy to slip away. So we did! It was the ditch of all ditches.

We made camp coffee, drank some more water, then realized that we might not have enough. I walked back over to the road, stood on the shoulder, held up my empty bottle and begged. A nice couple stopped and gladly filled up my bottle for me. I walked back to the rock camp and we waited for the sun to descend. The giant stone we’d camped under threw a big cool shadow, so we sat and talked and whiled away the rest of the day.

When the colors began to get right, we got up and stomped around, taking pictures.

We put up the tent but left off the fly. “Let’s be quiet,” I said, “and see what we can hear.”

The only things we heard became our lullaby, coyotes barking mournfully at the moon, and the soughing of the wind.

END


Star blanket

April 3, 2021 Comments Off on Star blanket

When you lie on your back, with your eyes open into the black sky, the stars brighten, shimmer, and then clot the heaven so thickly that they float down upon your consciousness like a blanket. It is impossible to stargaze in this state; our millions of years of evolution take over, we are reminded that day is done, and the light from those countless distant suns slowly and gently presses your lids over your eyes, and then you are asleep.

The last image was the brilliance of some easily recognized constellation, the Big Dipper and Orion, with a smattering of Pleiades on the side.

We people were made to sleep outdoors, and sleep deeply, that is all.

My pavilion at Ocotillo Wells was starry for a while, then overtaken by the brilliant moon and the muppets in the RV across the way, revving their ATV toys as they sprinted to the toilets and back in between alcohols. I was up at six, and by 7:30 had begun the second day of my trek out of the mountains over to Joshua Tree.

A brisk tailwind had combined with the cool weather and the slight downhill to create the bicycling trifecta, and I was at the intersection of CA 86 in no time at all. I emptied two of my large water bottles to save weight, and transitioned from the quiet and pleasant back roads to the miserable racket, road trash, and 18-wheelers plowing along this freeway to Los Angeles.

The tailwind became a sidewind, the downhill became slightly up, and I toiled for an hour and a half to cover about fifteen miles. At Salton City I was rewarded with a Subway and chocolate milk.

Making good time I reached Mecca before one, and was completely wrung out from the heat, the wind, and the traffic. I whipped into a travel stop, deliriously thirsty, and downed a couple of bottles of Gatorade before going into Mecca to find a grocery store.

There was a place in town called Leon’s Meat Market; I was the only white guy there. I had sandwich meat, oranges, milk, and beef jerky on my shopping list for dinner, but only found jerky and oranges as the milk was in one-gallon jugs. I sat out on the pavement cutting up the oranges as a very disturbed, mostly naked man wandered up and began screaming epithets in Spanish.

He didn’t pay any attention to me but continued to scream and curse. As he caught his breath I said, “Hey, man, are you okay? Do you need money?”

His screaming immediately ceased and he became completely normal. “Yeah, man, I’m fucking broke and starving hungry.”

“Here,” I said, and gave him some cash.

He took it. “Shit, thank you. That bitch that just drove off stole my drugs and now I’m off my medication and I have these fucking episodes. I’m so hungry. Thank you, man. What’s your name?”

“Seth.”

“I’m Pedro. That’s a bitching bike.”

“Thanks.”

“Is it carbon?”

“Yeah.”

“Sweet. I like the way you have it set up.”

We had a completely normal conversation, reminding me that “crazy homeless people” are, you know, people, and they have the same problems as everyone else, and when you address their immediate problems there is often nothing odd or frightening or weird about them at all. I remounted to go look for dinner, which I found at the Dollar General–a half-gallon of milk and a package of sliced turkey. The road was supposed to turn into Box Canyon Rd., where I was planning to camp, but after several miles there were still nothing but orchards, and it was fryingly hot. I was getting desperate because the barren landscape suggested that there wasn’t going to be any shade anywhere, i.e. the next five hours would be spent out in the open sunlight.

I briefly considered sneaking into one of the orchards and holing up beneath the trees but the “No Trespassing” signs everywhere seemed pretty serious.

The road finally turned into Box Canyon after a few hot and slogging and uphill miles, but nary a scrap of shade anywhere. Finally, about a quarter-mile up the road I spied a tree with shade. The white sand was so brilliant that the black spot of shade stood out from a great distance. I eagerly mashed the pedals.

As I got closer, my heart sank. A family had camped out beneath the tree and was picnicking. This is how it is in poor places with poor people. They will recreate on a barren patch of sand under a tree and be happy with it. I sure would have been …

A few hundred yards farther there was another tree, less shaded but with enough to provide cover until the sun went down. I pulled over and set up camp. One thing about bikepacking like this is that you often have several hours at a stretch with nothing to do, so you do what people have done since time immemorial: You sit around and watch. And you know what? When you watch, you see things. Funny, that.

In addition to a hummingbird in my tree, I realized that the “barren” landscape was awash with flowers, tiny but beautiful. And as the sun traced the sky, the colors changed on the rock faces, of the trees, even of the sand. I wandered over to the picnickers to see if they had extra water, as my ride the next day would be the queen stage through Joshua Tree National Park, but they had none to spare and instead offered me the coldest, best Coke I have ever drunk.

I stretched out my tarp, ate three turkey sandwiches, cooked up a cup of coffee, and watched the sun go down. I was covered with gnats, not of the biting variety, but we got along pretty well with me occasionally brushing them away out of principle more than anything else.

I got into my sleeping bag and looked up at the stars before nodding off. There were a few cars on the road until ten o’clock, after which it was a silent as only the desert can be, with a cool breeze blowing across my face the entire night long.

I was apprehensive about the next day’s ride. My friend John, who had offered me a patio to camp on for a couple of days in the town of Joshua Tree, had given me directions from Mecca. Box Canyon Road was a 15-mile gentle climb up to Interstate-10, and from there it was about 30 miles across Joshua Tree National Park to his house on the other side.

Something felt funny, though, and it was my experience riding in the last two days of heat. You go slow in the desert. The wind changes. The topography is never flat. There’s little food and water. It wouldn’t hurt to start early.

So I got up at 4:00 and set off at 5:30 under brilliant moonshine. I made good time, but it was still uphill, about 1,600 feet of climbing to the Interstate. I crossed over and was on the outskirts of the park. The sun was already doing its thing and it was hot. I had doubts about my water supply because I’d gotten a nasty shock: It was almost 50 miles to cross the park. I was thankful I’d started early.

A guy in an RV topped off my water bottles and gave me some great, mostly inaccurate information about what lay ahead. “You’re not riding your bike across the park, are you?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I don’t know if I’d advise that. It’s all uphill until the last few miles.”

I always wonder about people who advise me not to ride my bike somewhere. Should I walk? “Well, I’ll give it a shot.”

“Here,” he said, jamming a couple of Clif Bars in my hand. “You’re gonna need it.”

And … he was right.

The first seven miles were into a 20 mph headwind, up a nasty grade that took an hour and a half to get over. Thankfully there was a visitor center atop the climb, so I stopped, got water, and made my newest creation: Oatfee, which is made by dumping instant coffee into your instant oatmeal. I was so hungry it actually tasted great.

Two ladies came up to me. “Excuse me,” said one.

“Yes?”

“We saw you toiling up that hill. My god, the wind was incredible. We could feel it pushing against the car. And on a bike? Oh, my god. And I said to Sally, ‘I bet that guy has a story.’ Do you mind me asking your story?”

I smiled and told her a story which was 100% true except for the parts that I made up.

Another guy came up to me to chat. He was from Georgia, traveling with his family. “I’m a cyclist,” he said, “and saw you riding up that hill. That didn’t look fun!”

“It wasn’t.”

We got to talking and he, too, wanted to know my story, so I told him one that was mostly true. I’ve changed my story a bit as I have changed, but basically it goes like this. “I’ve decided to spent the rest of my life doing what I love.”

“And what is that?”

“Riding my bike and Chaucer.”

“I think I understand the first part,” he said.

So I launched off into an explanation of my quest to memorize the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and how if he had six or seven hours I could entertain him with the parts I’ve memorized so far. Oddly, he preferred to talk about derailleurs and bikepacking gear, so I obliged. He was no David Treece.

After my oatfee I remounted and was delighted to find that my guide a few miles back was completely wrong, or rather, he was a motorist, which is kind of the same thing. Motorists and motorcyclists don’t understand the words “uphill” and “downhill.” Bicycle riders, of course, do, and it’s simple. If the road is mostly 0-degrees it is “flat.” If it is +degrees, it is “uphill,” and if it is -degrees, it is “downhill.”

From the visitor center it was a screaming, 15-mile descent, and by screaming I mean “screaming silently with happiness because -degrees.” To a motorist it might not have seemed downhill, but when you are spinning the eleven … it’s downhill. I kept overtaking a couple that was stopping at every “Exhibit Ahead” sign, so I finally pulled over and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of them together.

They were delighted and they were French. I snapped a few pictures and told them my story when prompted. They carefully listened. “This is very beautiful,” the man said. I don’t think he was talking about the thick crust of salt covering my face or the third-degree sunburn on my nose.

The next section of the park began, a 12-mile climb. There was no wind but it was a slog and my legs were twisted dead. After a couple of miles I stopped at the ultimate Muppet Farm, a roadside cholla cactus garden. I wheeled in to eat a Clif bar and drink more water.

The muppets were everywhere. One of them saw me and quickly whispered something to his wife like, “Look! Over there! An authentic crazy desert rat!”

“Oh, gosh, Mortimer! Just like in the guidebook! See if you can get his picture.”

So Mortimer from Culver City came over and asked if he could take my picture, with the same deferential tone you’d ask if you were trying to get a photo up close of someone’s face who didn’t have any teeth. “Sure, I said.”

About this time Sylvester from Beverly Hills drove up in his giant Mercedes. He stepped out, properly attired for the outback without seeming to notice that this curated little tourist stop was much more In Front than Outback. He carefully adjusted an expensive porkpie hat over his thinning locks, then drew out an Armani leather shoulder bag/harness, and, clearly having gotten the March catalog for “Rich Schlumps” had simply called in and said, “I want everything that the model is wearing on page 32. Size medium tummy.”

The model had been wearing a $5,000 pair of brushed suede-and-alligator, ankle-high bootlets, which, if you’d been driving by on a Moto Guzzi at 90 might have looked like desert wear, but at anything less than that looked so delicate and expensive that so much as a scuff mark would have reduced any normal person to tears.

Sylvester then stood in the parking lot and carefully rotated 1/4 turns to the audience, soaking up his moment on the tarmac runway surrounded by pricks, cactus and otherwise, knowing that he had killed the In Front. I watched him walk slowly along the pavement, snap a few pictures with his phone, then carefully pick his way back to the chariot. He could now say he had “done” Joshua Tree. I hoped it had been as good for the tree as it had been for him.

Joshua Tree is an interesting park because it is the size of Rhode Island, bigger, actually, and has only a couple of tiny campgrounds which are booked about 12 years in advance. At first it seems like the public isn’t getting the chance to enjoy the park until you realize that the “public” is Mortimer and Sylvester. Muppet enjoyment of nature is five minutes outdoors followed by a 2-hour drive through the park to the alcohols that await in town.

The trails were empty except for a couple of designated trailheads swollen with cars; but the fat and lazy profile of the muppets didn’t fool me at all. You could see clots of people at the trailhead, but gazing down the trails you could see they were as desolate as the rest of the park. Muppets don’t like no desert trek.

After the muppet stop I toiled another ten slow miles to the top of the park, then began an amazing 12-mile descent, maybe more, that ended in a 4 or 5-mile straight-line downhill into the town of 29 Palms. I hit the 7-11, delirious from heat and thirst, drank more Gatorade, and called John to get directions to his desert retreat.

“Just get on the main highway. We’re just 11 miles down the road. It’s not too bad, especially because there’s not much wind.”

Only eleven miles at the end of a brutal, windy, hot day is enough to break anyone, but it was nothing as to what awaited me at the turnoff to John’s place: 1-mile straight up climb in soft sand to his house, which abuts the northern border of the park. I struggled as hard up that last mile as I can remember struggling anywhere, but John met me about halfway and we rode up to the top together.

He fed me water and a giant cheeseburger, which I didn’t taste and simply swallowed. Following that he whipped up chicken and beef tacos for dinner, then showed me out to my chaise-longue on the patio.

It had a soft mattress and ushered in the sweetest sleep I’ve had in memory. I lay there for a few minutes before pulling the blanket of stars over my eyes and drifting off to sleep.

END